Monthly Market and Economic Outlook: July 2014

Amy MagnottaAmy Magnotta, CFASenior Investment Manager, Brinker Capital

Equity markets continued to grind higher in the second quarter despite continued tapering by the Federal Reserve, a negative GDP print, and rising geopolitical tensions. All asset classes have delivered positive returns in the first half of the year, led by long-term U.S. Treasury bonds. There has been a lack of volatility across all asset classes; the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) fell to its lowest level since February 2007.

Year to date the U.S. equity markets are slightly ahead of international markets. All S&P sectors are positive year to date, led by utilities and energy. Mid cap value has been the best performing style, helped by the double-digit performance of REITs. U.S. large caps have outperformed small caps, but after experiencing a drop of more than -9%, small caps rebounded nicely in June. Value leads growth across all market capitalizations.

Despite concerns surrounding the impact of Fed tapering on emerging economies, emerging market equities outperformed developed markets in the second quarter, and have gained more than 6% so far this year, putting the asset class ahead of developed international equities. Small cap emerging markets and frontier markets have had even Magnotta_Market_Update_7.09.14_1stronger performance. The dispersion of performance within emerging markets has been high, with India, Indonesia and Argentina among the top performers, and China, Mexico and Chile among the laggards. On the developed side, performance from Japan has been disappointing but a decent rebound in June bumped it into positive territory for the year-to-date period.

Despite a consensus call for higher interest rates in 2014, U.S. Treasury yields moved lower. The 10-year Treasury Note is currently trading at 2.6% (as of 7/7/14), still below the 3.0% level where it started the year. While sluggish economic growth and geopolitical risks could be keeping a ceiling on U.S. rates, technical factors are also to blame. The supply of Treasuries has been lower due to the decline in the budget deficit, and the Fed remains a large purchaser, even with tapering in effect. At the same time demand has increased from both institutions that need to rebalance back to fixed income after experiencing strong equity markets returns, and investors seeking relative value with extremely low interest rates in Japan and Europe.

With the decline in interest rates and investor risk appetite for credit still strong, the fixed income asset class has delivered solid returns so far this year. Both investment grade and high yield credit spreads continue to grind tighter. Emerging market bonds, both sovereign and corporate, have also experienced a nice rebound after a tough 2013. Municipal bonds benefited from a positive technical backdrop with strong demand for tax-free income being met with a lack of new issuance.

We approach our macro view as a balance between headwinds and tailwinds. We believe the scale remains tipped in favor of tailwinds, with a number of factors supporting the economy and markets over the intermediate term.

  • Global monetary policy remains accommodative: Even with quantitative easing slated to end in the fall, U.S. short-term interest rates should remain near-zero until 2015 if inflation remains contained. The ECB and the Bank of Japan are continuing their monetary easing programs.
  • Global growth stable: We expect a rebound in U.S. growth in the second quarter after the polar vortex helped to contribute to a decline in economic output in the first quarter. Outside of the U.S., growth has not been very robust, but it is still positive.
  • Labor market progress: The recovery in the labor market has been slow, but we have continued to add jobs. The unemployment rate has fallen to 6.1%.
  • U.S. companies remain in solid shape: U.S. companies have solid balance sheets that are flush with cash. M&A deal activity has picked up this year. Corporate profits remain at high levels and margins have been resilient.
  • Less Drag from Washington: After serving as a major uncertainty over the last few years, Washington has done little damage so far this year. Fiscal drag will not have a major impact on growth in 2014, and the budget deficit has also declined significantly.

Risks facing the economy and markets remain, including:

  • Fed Tapering/Tightening: If the Fed continues at the current pace, quantitative easing will end in the fall. Risk assets have historically reacted negatively when monetary stimulus has been withdrawn; however, this withdrawal is more gradual and the economy appears to be on more solid footing this time. Should inflation pick up, market participants will shift quickly to concern over the timing of the Fed’s first interest rate hike. Despite the recent uptick in the CPI, the core Personal Consumption Expenditure Price Index (PCE), the Fed’s preferred inflation measure, is up only +1.5% over the last 12 months.
  • Election Year: While we noted there has been some progress in Washington, we could see market volatility pick up later this year in response to the mid-term elections.
  • Geopolitical Risks: The events surrounding Iraq, as well as Russia/Ukraine are further evidence that geopolitical risks cannot be ignored.

Risk assets should continue to perform if we experience the expected pickup in economic growth; however, we could see increased volatility and a shallow correction as markets digest the end of the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing program. Economic data, especially inflation data, will be watched closely for signs that could lead the Fed to tighten monetary policy earlier than expected. Equity market valuations look elevated, but not overly rich relative to history, and maybe even reasonable when considering the level of interest rates and inflation. Investor sentiment remains overly optimistic, but the market trend remains positive. In addition, credit conditions still provide a positive backdrop for the markets.

Our portfolios are positioned to take advantage of continued strength in risk assets, and we continue to emphasize high conviction opportunities within asset classes, as well as strategies that can exploit market inefficiencies.

Asset Class

Outlook

Favored Sub-Asset Classes

U.S. Equity

+

Large cap bias, dividend growers

Intl Equity

+

Emerging and Frontier markets, small cap

Fixed Income

Global high yield credit, short duration

Absolute Return

+

Closed-end funds, event driven

Real Assets

+/-

MLPs, natural resources equities

Private Equity

+

Diversified

 

Source: Brinker Capital

Brinker Capital, Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor. Views expressed are for informational purposes only. Holdings subject to change. Not all asset classes referenced in this material may be represented in your portfolio. All investments involve risk including loss of principal. Fixed income investments are subject to interest rate and credit risk. Foreign securities involve additional risks, including foreign currency changes, political risks, foreign taxes, and different methods of accounting and financial reporting. Past performance is not a guarantee of similar future results. An investor cannot invest directly in an index.

Eurozone Crisis Report Card

Ryan DresselRyan Dressel, Investment Analyst, Brinker Capital

In January 2013 Amy Magnotta wrote in detail about how the actions of the European Central Bank (ECB) finally gave the markets confidence that policy makers could get their sovereign debt problems under control.[1] The purpose of this blog is to measure the progress of the ECB’s actions, as well as other critical steps taken to resolve the Eurozone crisis.

Maintaining the Euro: A+
The markets put a lot of faith in the comments made by the head of the ECB Mario Draghi in July, 2012. Draghi stated that he would “Pledge to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro.” These words have proven to be monumental in preserving the euro as a currency. Following his announcement, the ECB still had to put together a plan that would be approved by the ECB’s governing council (comprised of banking representatives from each of the 18 EU countries)[2]. The politics of the approval essentially boiled down to whether or not each council member supported the euro as a currency. Draghi’s plan ultimately passed when Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, endorsed it in September 2012.[3] The stabilization of the euro boosted lending and borrowing for European banks, and allowed governments to introduce necessary economic reforms outlined in the plan.

Since the plan was approved, the euro’s value versus the U.S. Dollar has continued to rise; reaching levels last seen in 2011. There is still some debate as to whether or not the currency will last over the long term, but for now its stability has helped avoid the worst possible outcome (financial collapse). There are several key elections coming up over the next month, which could renew the threat of breaking up the currency if anti-EU officials are elected.

Government Deficit Levels: B
The average Eurozone government deficit came in at 3.0% in 2013, which was down from 3.7% in 2012. Budgets will need to remain tight for years to come.

Corporate Earnings: B
The MSCI Europe All Cap Index has returned 27.46% in 2013 and 5.01% so far in 2014 (as of last week). The Euro area also recorded first quarter 2014 GDP growth at +0.2% (-1.2% in Q1 2013).[4] This indicates that companies in Europe have established some positive earnings growth since the peak of the crisis. On a global scale, Europe looks like an attractive market for growth.

Dressel_EuroZone_ReportCard_5.30.14

Unemployment: C
Unemployment in the Eurozone has stabilized, but has not improved significantly enough to overcome its structural problems. The best improvements have come out of Spain, Ireland and Portugal due to a variety of reasons. In Ireland, emigration has helped reduce jobless claims while a majority of economic sectors increased employment growth. In Spain, the increased competitiveness in the manufacturing sector has been a large contributor. Portugal has seen a broad reduction in unemployment stemming from the strict labor reforms mandated by the ECB in exchange for bailout packages. These reforms are increasing worker hours, cutting overtime payments, reducing holidays, and giving companies the ability to replace poorly performing employees.[5]

Dressel_EuroZone_ReportCard_5.30.14_1[6]

There are also some important fundamental factors detracting from the overall labor market recovery. The large divide between temporary workers and permanent workers in many Eurozone countries has made labor markets especially difficult to reform. This is likely due to a mismatch of skills between employers and workers. High employment taxes and conservative decision-making by local governments and corporations have also created challenges for the recovery.

Additional Reading: Euro Area Labor Markets

Debt Levels: D
Total accumulated public debt in the Eurozone has actually gotten worse since the ECB’s plan was introduced. In 2013 it was 92.6% of gross domestic product, up from 90.7% in 2012. The stated European Union limit is 60%, which reflects the extremely high amount of government borrowing required to stabilize their economies.

Overall Recovery Progress: B-
On a positive note, governments are finally able to participate in bond markets without the fear of bankruptcy looming. Banks are lending again. Unemployment appears to have peaked and political officials recognize the importance of improving economic progress.

Unlike the 2008 U.S. recovery however, progress is noticeably slower. The social unrest, slow decision making, low confidence levels, and now geopolitical risks in Ukraine have hampered the recovery. When you consider the financial state of Europe less than two years ago, you have to give the ECB, and Europe in general, some credit. Things are slowly heading in the right direction.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are for informational purposes only. Holdings are subject to change.

[1] January 4, 2013. “Is Europe on the Mend?” http://blog.brinkercapital.com/2013/01/04/is-europe-on-the-mend/
[2]
European Central Bank. http://www.ecb.europa.eu/ecb/orga/decisions/govc/html/index.en.html
[3] September 6, 2012. “Technical features of Outright Monetary Transactions. European Central Bank.” http://www.ecb.europa.eu/press/pr/date/2012/html/pr120906_1.en.html
[4] Eurostat
[5] August 6, 2012. “Portugal Enforces Labour Reforms but More Demanded.” http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2012/08/port-a06.html
[6] Eurostat (provided by Google Public Data)